Alex Borden is originally from Wisconsin, USA and has been travelling through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, New Zealand, and Nepal for the last 2-years, staying primarily in hostels. Using a background in journalism to document his travels along the way, he shares one of his first Couchsurfing experiences in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Sitting in a Kathmandu café that would be considered stylish by any standard, the contrast to recent past is glaringly apparent. You see I have spent my last week in a couch surfing arrangement with, now close friend, Saugat Dangal and his family. The styling of the western world is not a consideration in the average Nepali home, thus presenting the cultural shock some find unbearable and others feel is essential to truly experiencing a country.
For those of you that are unaware, Couchsurfing.com is a growing phenomenon in the backpacking world that allows active travelers to connect with those that are home at the moment and may have an open couch to offer. As a rule the arrangement cannot involve direct compensation, with the goal being to meet locals and better understand the area in which you are travelling. I hope to walk you through one of my first days in this somewhat polarizing experience, with full disclosure that I may be a Couchsurfing addict for life.
My journey began with an eventful 10pm trip from Tribhuvan International Airport, I was lost, Saugat was not. After repeated contact to find his home through a landmark unrecognized by the taxi driver, I arrived at my accommodation for the next week.
Saugat’s house is basic but comfortable and though the furnishings are sparse, care has been taken to provide warmth. There is a television in which programming is displayed that no foreigner would understand and an internet connection that is well shy of reliable. A quick survey reveals the resident ‘squatty-potty’ and though this is consistent with most restaurants and facilities in Nepal some may find it daunting in their primary residence. I also learn that there will only be power available for 4-hours a day, 2 in the morning and 2 in the evening, as Kathmandu is experiencing power shortages. Hotels will likely use their own generators while homes cannot.
A so called ‘squatty potty’ photo taken by Will at Maha Kumbh Mela, a common sight in developing countries
I hardly noticed these details though as I walked through the door and completed a crash course to my bed that began 31-hours earlier in Auckland, New Zealand. With jet lag being considered my social skills were admittedly shy of engaging but my hosts took every understanding and even provided me with a warm meal of the rice and lentil dish, dal bhat, prepared in anticipation of my arrival. As I drifted off to sleep that evening, full from my first local meal, what little consciousness I could afford thought only of the surprise that daylight could bring.
Helping to make a local Nepalese bread
In waking the following day I began to realize the different world that I had happened upon. My bed was a well-laid out pile of blankets on the floor in one of the house’s four rooms and outside the window lay the bustling complexity of stone houses and narrow passages that make up an outer Kathmandu neighborhood. It should be noted that Couchsurfing accommodations can vary greatly, and one should not be picky when a pillow is provided free of charge, but if you are travelling properly sheer exhaustion will allow you to sleep on anything!
Though I was still suffering from jet-lag Saugat had the day planned and it did not involve sleeping in. My stay had coincidentally begun on the final day of a major Hindu religious festival, Swasthani, a festival I had not heard of and likely never would have if it weren’t for Saugat. Already astray of the typical tourist path we boarded a cramped local bus to a destination even further outside the westerner comfort zone to Shalinadi Temple. Despite the tight quarters, curious looks from locals offered a wondering of, ‘what is he doing here?’ that can only be met with anticipation.
As we walked through the thousands of people making the necessary local pilgrimage, I became conscious of the fact that I was quite obviously one of few foreigners’ fortunate enough to witness these events. Through the generosity of my host I was able to leave the backpacking circuit behind and begin to understand what went on ‘behind the scenes’ of Kathmandu, where people live afar from catering to tourism. In speaking with numerous locals since, they have been amazed at my knowledge of their culture and an event that is so personal and integral to their lives.
Couchsurfing cannot guarantee that every day will be a visit to a significant, remote temple that is free of other tourists. What can be expected though is the knowledge of an open host willing to share local secrets that can otherwise be impossible to obtain.
In places such as Nepal the frills are few but are more than compensated for by the ability to tap into hidden channels beneath the tourism surface. Your host will likely not be a trained tourism operator but a regular resident as you would be in your own home town, so it is important to establish your priorities. Organizing more typical tours from residential areas outside established tourism areas can be tricky and for this reason I chose to spend a week with Saugat and his family before spending two-nights in a hostel prior to ‘site-seeing.’
If this style of adventurous travel sounds interesting, you need to get started by creating your Couchsurfing profile at http://www.couchsurfing.com. While this is accomplished easily enough the true currency of the Couchsurfing world are references, which can be more difficult to obtain. Each time you stay or host through Couchsurfing you will be reviewed by the other participating party. Though this may seem odd at first, it is essential to maintaining the safety and mentality of the program.
I hope that this brief account of my time Couchsurfing in Kathmandu has provided perspective on an experience that may change the way you travel for good. For now, I can only encourage you to get out there and add a couch to your next trip itinerary.